Sept 1, 2023: Fitness has become a major issue of concern in cricket at present. A cricketer looks far leaner, fitter, more agile, and more athletic than ever before.
However, frequent breakdowns seem to be the norm of a cricketer’s life today, even though, they now travel and stay in comfort and have a staff of professionals at their beck and call to look after them.
A line from the famous poem “Little Man Cricketer” written by Frank Jones comes to mind, “Cricket is a game for a real live man, keep fit little man keep fit.” The poem goes on to talk of various aspects of the game, from dropping a catch to winning or losing or getting out on the very first ball, and through it all, it says, “Just smile”.
Unfortunately, “just smile” is exactly what the fans and followers of cricket are putting up with as regards players’ fitness. Every team seems to be in a predicament. One wonders, if it is the busy schedule of tournaments and matches being played by them or if cricketers have become soft in facing pain and hardship.
A cricketer will rarely, in his playing days, be completely fit. There is always a niggle here and there, which one overcomes in the heat of the moment. During their playing days, several of India’s cricketing greats have played through pain and discomfort.
A Kapil Dev in the present scenario would have been a regular visitor to the BCCI National Academy for the injuries he went through during his days. One remembers his knee injuries, hamstring, and groin strains on the eve of a match. However, holding him back from playing the game was an impossible task.
Similarly, back spasms were a regular problem faced by batters and bowlers. A few of India’s top batsmen slept on the hard floor of a hotel room rather than on the soft bed to counter it.
Mohinder Amarnath, one of India’s foremost cricketers, was a good example of a very fit cricketer with plenty of niggles in most parts of his body. He was like a gladiator with plenty of wounds but had the heart of a never-say-die warrior. Nothing could keep him away from playing a match and once on the field, one never saw his discomfort.
During our 1979 England tour, Amarnath was struck on the head by a bouncer from Richard Hadlee while playing against Nottinghamshire. We were to play a Test match at the Oval in 4 or 5 days. Mohinder with a hairline skull fracture was all set to play in it for the pride of playing for his country.
Naturally, the doctor did not permit the braveheart from doing so primarily as in those days one did not wear a helmet. Anil Kumble bowled with a broken jaw and Sunil Gavaskar, in 1971 made a double century with an excruciating toothache at Trinidad to draw the Test match for India to win the series. These are only a few of the incredible and daring feats in Indian cricket.
Sachin Tendulkar, one gathers, had a series of injuries which he overcame to play for India. This is what makes him such a legend, as, bearing up to the pain, and adjusting his game to overcome it, is what one truly admires. Furthermore, his absence would have given the opponents that extra bit of confidence, and knowing about that factor is what made him and many others true heroes of Indian cricket.
One does understand that the cricket calendar of a modern cricketer is crammed with plenty of tours and matches. The popular limited-overs formats have brought more International matches to the fold.
However, if one analyses the playing days of a cricket tour then against most countries, especially against Australia and England, one played a series of county matches, taking part in as many playing days as today.
An Indian cricket calendar for a player then was a busy schedule between the domestic first-class, club, and corporate cricket matches. Each one was played very seriously as the runs and wickets taken were all that a cricketer could showcase to make one’s presence felt to keep one in the reckoning.
The Ranji Trophy league stage on a zonal basis had just four matches in the West and one needed to perform well in all of them to get into a Duleep Trophy zonal side.
Therefore, the side matches were equally important. One also played the Indian tournaments such as the Moin-ud-Dowla, Sheesh Mahal, Times Shield, and various other leagues to keep one in the limelight.
Cricket was played all around the year in India and several cricketers went to the United Kingdom to play professional cricket.
The playing conditions, protective and safety gear and the cricket kit itself were far from what a cricketer of every age group possesses today. One then had poor accommodation and basic travel facilities with very little ground facilities However, the passion and pleasure of playing the game was all that finally mattered.
One rarely came across cricketers suffering the major injuries that one seems to read about presently. Maybe the progress that the world has made in the line of medicine and health care and the in-depth findings that one gets through the various scans is over-emphasizing injuries that one took in one’s stride earlier.
The Asia Cup seems to be riddled with injuries even before it started among most of the participating sides. India has a list of players returning or just recovered from injuries.
K.L. Rahul is a good example of a player who was passed fit and seems to have got an injury even before India’s first match in the Asia Cup against their arch-rivals Pakistan. Rahul, they said, would be fit for the Super 4, if India qualifies, which they most likely should.
One wonders whether he or how many of the other Indian players, playing maybe three high-octane matches against Pakistan, will be able to sustain and emerge fit and fine after the Asian Cup tournament.
India, immediately thereafter, has the World Cup ’23 at its door. Their 1.4 billion fans have only one aspiration and desire. To win the Cup. “So stay fit little man, stay fit”.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal.)